Reviews: Biographical Books


The Waterloo Archive Volume I: British Sources

Glover, Gareth (editor). The Waterloo Archive Volume I: British Sources. Barnsley, UK: Frontline Books, 2010. 287 pages. ISBN# 9781848325401. ₤25.

 

The Waterloo Archive Volume I: British Sources

The Waterloo Archive is an ambitious project undertaken by Gareth Glover, to make available the wealth of primary source material that exists in family archives, regimental and local museums, and libraries, but has never been published or not published in the last 100 years.  The first volume focuses on British sources and is organized like Siborne's The Waterloo Letters – by brigades and regiments. It includes letters and diaries from officers and soldiers who served on the staff, in eleven different cavalry regiments, thirteen different infantry regiments, plus the artillery, the medical corps, and even civilians.

I have been collecting and reading British primary sources for almost thirty years and I was struck by how different the letters in The Waterloo Archive was from most of the other books in my collection. The first thing that caught my attention was the urgency of the writers to reassure their family that they were well and the fate of other family members and friends.  Unlike the Peninsular War, where news of a battle took weeks to reach home, Waterloo's outcome was known in England within a few days.  The second thing was the enormity of the casualties.  It is one thing to read that a regiment took 50% casualties, but it is another to read a letter home by a junior officer listing the names of his friends and fellow officers who were killed or severely wounded; or the letter from a private telling his family that his brother had been killed.

Something that also stands out in these letters is the rank of the writers.  Only twenty percent of the letters were from senior officers, of which only one was by a general officer.  The other eighty percent of the letters were from junior officers or enlisted soldiers.  The junior officers generally wrote only about what the actions they fought in or observed or thought they knew as fact (which at times was wrong).  Interestingly, one of the underlining themes in their letters was how they had to send their letters through civilian postal offices because the Duke of Wellington was censoring mail to ensure that only the official story was told.

 What I found fascinating was that 20% of the total letters were written by sergeants and privates.  This definitely flies in the face of modern convention that the typical soldier was illiterate.  Some of the best stories were provided by them.  They described the battles in detail, but also life on campaign. In them you can the minutes of one soldier's court-martial and an account of the party that the sergeants and corporals threw to celebrate the numerous promotions.  Other letters provide vivid descriptions of what it was like to be in a square that was under attack by French cavalry and or riding in the charge of the Scots Greys. 

One of the best stories was told by Private Thomas Hasker of the 1st King's Dragoon Guards.  During a charge, his horse was killed and while he tried to free himself, Private Hasker was slashed in the head by a cuirassier, stabbed by a lancer and an infantryman, bayoneted by another, and had his fingers cut off by another.  All the while this was going on various soldiers would stop and plunder him. To add insult to injury, he was under constant fire of the British artillery, and towards the evening was trampled by British cavalry who came charging through. By the time he was found late that night, he had been wounded a dozen times and been robbed of his watch, money, canteen, and even his trousers. It would be an understatement to say that he had better days!

The Waterloo Archive is lavishly illustrated.  Mr. Glover was able to obtain permission to publish twenty-two sketches done by Captain Mercer of the Royal Horse Artillery.  These sketches were made during the campaign and have never been published before.  The book also contains 8 color plates done by James Rouse.  These paintings were based on drawings he made within days of the battle and were first published in 1817.  Frontline Books should be thanked for publishing them, for it is rare to find color illustrations in books today.

Five more volumes are planned for this magnificent series – a new one every year until 2015, the 200 anniversary of Waterloo.  Volume Two will be on the Germans, including the King's German Legion, the Hanoverians, Nassau, and Brunswick Troops.  Volumes Three and Five will be more British material, while Volume Four will be the Prussians.  A six volume is planned and was originally going to contain French and Dutch sources; however it will probably be more British letters.

I cannot say enough about Volume One of The Waterloo Archive.  It is an incredible collection of primary sources that provides the perspective of the junior officers and enlisted soldiers of the final campaign of the Napoleonic Wars.  I strongly recommend that you do not wait to buy this book.  It will quickly become a collector's item!

 

Reviewed By Robert Burnham.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: March 2010

 

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